Contemporary Reviews of Georgia Douglas Johnson
William Stanley Braithwaite
The poems in this book are intensely feminine and for me this means more than anything else that they are deeply human. We are yet scarcely aware, in spite of our boasted twentieth-century progress, of what lies deeply hidden, of mystery and passion, of domestic love and joy and sorrow, of romantic visions and practical ambitions, in the heart of a woman. The emancipation of woman is yet to be wholly accomplished; though woman has stamped her image on every age of the world's history, and in the heart of almost every man since time began, it is only a little over half of a century since she has either spoken or acted with a sense of freedom. During this time she has made little more than a start to catch up with man in the wonderful things he has to his credit; and yet all that man has to his credit would scarcely have been achieved except for the devotion and love and inspiring comradeship of woman.
Here, then, is lifted the veil, in these poignant songs and lyrics. To look upon what is revealed is to give one a sense of infinite sympathy; to make one kneel in spirit to the marvelous patience, the wonderful endurance, the persistent faith, which are hidden in this nature.
The heart of a woman falls back with the night,
And enters some alien cage in its plight,
And tries to forget it has dreamed of the stars
While it breaks, breaks, breaks on the sheltering bars.
sings the poet. And
The songs of the singer
Are tones that repeat
The cry of the heart
Till it ceases to beat.
This verse just quoted is from "The Dreams of the Dreamer," and with the previous quotation tells us that this woman's heart is keyed in the plaintive, knows the sorrowful agents of life and experience which knock and enter at the door of dreams. But women have made the saddest songs of the world, Sappho no less than Elizabeth Barrett Browning, Ruth the Moabite no less than Amy Levy, the Jewess who broke her heart against the London pavements; and no less does sadness echo its tender and appealing sigh in these songs and lyrics of Georgia Douglas Johnson. But sadness is a kind of felicity with woman, paradoxical as it may seem; and it is so because through this inexplicable felicity they touched, intuitionally caress, reality.
So here engaging life at its most reserved sources, whether the form or substance through which it articulates be nature, or the seasons, touch of hands or lips, love, desire, or any of the emotional abstractions which sweep like fire or wind or cooling water through the blood, Mrs. Johnson creates just the reality of woman's heart and experience with astonishing raptures. It is a kind of privilege to know so much about the secrets of woman's nature, a privilege all the more to be cherished when given, as in these poems, with such exquisite utterance, with such a lyric sensibility.
William Stanley Braithwaite, "Introduction," The Heart of a Woman and Other Poems by Georgia Douglas Johnson (Boston: Cornhill Co., 1918), pp. vii-ix
J. R. Fauset
In these days of vers libre and the deliberate straining for poetic effect these lyrics of Mrs. Johnson bring with them a certain sense of relief and freshness. Also the utter absence of the material theme makes appeal. We are all very wary of the war note and are glad to return to the softer pipings of old time themeslove, friendship, longing, despairall of which are set forth in The Heart of a Woman.
The book has artistry, but it is its sincerity which gives it its value. Here are the little sharp experiences of life mirrored poignantly, sometimes feverishly, always truly. Each lyric is an instantaneous photograph of one of the many moments in existence which affect one briefly perhaps, but indelibly. Mr. Braithwaite says in his introduction that this author engages "life at its most reserved sources whether the form or substance through which it articulates be nature, or the seasons, touch of hands or lips, love, desire or any of the emotional abstractions which sweep like fire or wind or cooling water through the blood." The ability to give a faithful and recognizable portrayal of these sources, is Mrs. Johnson's distinction.
In this work, Mrs. Johnson, although a woman of color, is dealing with life as it is regardless of the part that she may play in the great drama. Here she is a woman of that imagination that characterizes any literary person choosing this field as a means of directing the thought of the world. Several of her poems bearing on the Negro race have appeared in the Crisis. In these efforts she manifests the radical tendencies characteristic of every thinking Negro of a developed mind and sings beautifully not in the tone of the lamentations of the prophets of old but, while portraying the trials and tribulations besetting a despised and rejected people, she sings the song of hope. In reading her works the inevitable impression is that it does not yet appear what she will be. Adhering to her task with the devotion hitherto manifested, there is no reason why she should not in the near future take rank among the best writers of the world.
J. R. Fauset, [Review of The Heart of a Woman and Other Poems], Journal of Negro History 4, No.4 (October 1919): 467-68
W. E. B. Du Bois
Those who know what it means to be a colored woman in 1922and know it not so much in fact as in feeling, apprehension, unrest and delicate yet stem thoughtmust read Georgia Douglas Johnson's Bronze. Much of it will not touch this reader and that, and some of it will mystify and puzzle them as a sort of reiteration and over-emphasis. But none can fail to be caught here and there by a worda phrasea period that tells a life history or even paints the history of a generation. Can you not see that marching of the mantled with
Voices strange to ecstasy ?
Have you ever looked on the "twilight faces" of their throngs, or seen the black mother with her son when
Her heart is sandaling his feet?
Or can you not conceive that infinite sorrow of a dark child wandering the world:
Seeking the breast of an unknown face!
I hope Mrs. Johnson will have wide reading. Her word is simple, sometimes trite, but it is singularly sincere and true, and as a revelation of the soul struggle of the women of a race it is invaluable.
W. E. B. Du Bois, "Foreword," Bronze: A Book of Verse by Georgia Douglas Johnson (Boston: B. J. Brimmer Co., 1922), p. 7
Alain Leroy Locke
In Bronze, Mrs. Johnson has at last come to her ownif not also in a peculiar way, into her own. A certain maturity that is to be expected of a third volume of verse, is here, but it is the homecoming of the mind and heart to intimately racial thought and experience which is to be especially noted and commended. We can say of this that it is timely both for the author and her readers: for her, it represents the fruition of a premeditated plan not to speak racially until she has learned to speak and attract attention in the universal key; for her readers, of many classes and sections of opinion, it represents more perhaps an occasion of seeing the "color problem" at the heart, as it affects the inner life. Even if it were not very readable poetry, it would, from this latter point of view, be important as human documentation of a much needed sort. "Not wholly this or that""Frail children of sorrow, determined by a hue""Shall I say, 'My son, you're branded in this country's pageantry'"the phrase Du Bois has singled out, "With voices strange to ecstasy""This spirit-choking atmosphere""My every fibre fierce rebels, against this servile role"or
Don't knock at my door, little child
I cannot let you in;
You know not what a world this is
there are volumes in these phrases. After this), the race question becomes, as it must to all intelligent observers, a human problem, a common problem.
One of Mrs. Johnson's literary virtues is condensation. She often distills the trite and commonplace into an elixir. Following the old-fashioned lyric strain and the sentimentalist cult of the common emotions, she succeeds because by sincerity and condensation, her poetry escapes to a large extent its own limitations. Here in the subject of these verses, there is however a double pitfall; avoiding sentimentality is to come dangerously close to propaganda. This is also deftly avoidedmore by instinct than by calculation. Mrs. Johnson's silences and periods are eloquent, she stops short of the preachy and prosaic and is always lyrical and human. Almost before one has shaped his life to "Oh! the pity of it, a certain fresh breeze of faith and courage blows over the heart, and the mind revives to a healthy, humanistic optimist. Mrs. Johnson seems to me to hear a message, a message that gains through being softly but intensely insinuated between the lines of her poems"Let the traditional instincts of women heal the world that travails under the accumulated woes of the uncompensated instincts of men", or to speak more in her way, "May the saving grace of the mother-heart save humanity."
Alain Leroy Locke, [Review of Bronze: A Book of Verse], Crisis 25, No.4 (February 1923): 161
Effie Lee Newsome
It is well-nigh impossible to think of this vital product from the pen of Georgia Douglas Johnson without having communicated to one some of the intense conviction that WROUGHT it into being. It has been stated that authors can convince only to the extent of their persuasion: Georgia Douglas Johnson has molded with the very pulsations of her heart.
Her heartfor this is the potent factor in her creative forcehas molded a "Bronze" that challenges not altogether with the sharp angles of accusation, but as well with the graceliness of heart's call to heart for sympathy in the problems of race; as in "The Octoroon;" as also in the ever-recurring light and shadow theme of colored woman's motherhood:
The infant eyes look out amazed upon the frowning earth,
A stranger, in a land now strange, child of the mantled birth;
Waxing, he wonders mote and more; the scowling grows apace,
A world, behind its barring doors, reviles his ebon face!
And we must quote, further, the two lines that conclude if not solve the problem of the poem:
Yet from this maelstrom issues forth a God-like entity,
That loves a world all loveless, and smiles on Calvary!
In ending this finesse of workmanship Mrs. Johnsonor still shall we say, "her heart?"polishes the bronze with the glory and rich lustre that bronze alone can know. There are inspiring paeans at the end of the work:
Into the very star-shine, lo! they come
Wearing the bays of victory complete!
to quote in connection with closing tributes to black achievers, the last two verses from the sonnet that opens this book, burnished, in spite of all, now here, now there, with a brave "Optimism" that can glow thus:
We man our parts within life's tragic play.
Effie Lee Newsome, [Review of Bronze: A Book of Verse], Opportunity 1, No. 12 (December 1923): 337
Voicing (the) yearning of woman for candid self-expression, Mrs. Johnson invades the province where convention has been most tyrannous and inveterate,the experiences of love. And here she succeeds where others have failed; for they in over-sophistication, in terror of platitudes and the commonplace, have stressed the bizarre, the exceptional, in one way or another have over-intellectualized their message and overleapt the common elemental experience they would nevertheless express. Mrs. Johnson, on the contrary, in a simple declarative style, engages with ingenuous directness the moods and emotions of her themes.
Through you I entered Heaven and Hell
Knew rapture and despair.
Here is the requisite touch, certainly for the experiences of the heart. Greater sophistication would spoil the message. Fortunately, to the gift of a lyric style, delicate touch, rhapsodic in tone, authentic in timbre, there has been added a temperamental endowment of ardent sincerity of emotion, ingenuous candor of expression, and, happiest of all for the particular task, a naive and unsophisticated spirit.
By way of a substantive message, Mrs. Johnson's philosophy of life is simple, unpretentious, but wholesome and spiritually invigorating. On the one hand, she belongs with those who, under the leadership of Sara Teasdale, have been rediscovering the Sapphic cult of love as the ecstasy of life, that cult of enthusiasm which leaps over the dilemma of optimism and pessimism, and accepting the paradoxes, pulses in the immediacies of life and rejoices openly in the glory of experience. In a deeper and somewhat more individual message, upon which she only verges, and which we believe will later be her most mature and original contribution, Mrs. Johnson probes under the experiences of love to the underlying forces of natural instinct which so fatalistically control our lives. [Especially is this evident in her suggestion of the tragic poignancy of Motherhood, where the consummation of love seems also the expiation of passion, and where, between the antagonisms of the dual role of Mother and Lover, we may suspect the real dilemma of womanhood to lie.]
Whatever the philosophical yield, however, we are grateful for the prospect of such lyricism. Seeking a pure lyric gold, Mrs. Johnson has gone straight to the mine of the heart. She has dug patiently in the veins of her own subjective experience. What she has gleaned has been treasured for the joy of the search and for its own intrinsic worth, and not exploited for the values of show and applause. Above all, her material has been expressed with a candor that shows that she brings to the poetic field what it lacks most,the gift of the elemental touch. Few will deny that, with all its other excellences, the poetry of the generation needs just this touch to make it more vitally human and more spontaneously effective.
Alain Locke, "Foreword," An Autumn Love Cycle by Georgia Douglas Johnson (New York: Harold Vinal, 1928), pp. xvii-xix
Within the last ten years, Georgia Douglas Johnson has, through her publishers, brought out three volumes of lyrics, most of which employnext to foodthe oldest theme in the world, and would exquisitely complement a musical setting, here, too, in this united estate of America, where it is decidedly against the lawDred Scott, Monroe Doctrine, or, maybe, some unwritten cartel of Marque and Reprisal,for any person of color to write of love without hypothecating atavistic jungle tones: the rumble of tom-tom, voodoo ebo, fetish of sagebrush and high spliced palm treeall the primal universal passions often solely associated with Africa,
Pardon, I did intend writing about Mrs. Johnson's latest book, An Autumn Love Cycle, but any digression is logical in an atmosphere where even an offering on the shrine of Parnassus must meet the agony of challenge: Aha! It is white. . . . How important! Lo, it is black! Alas! But Life, the book of poetry, cannot relate itself to unrelated persons. Silk purses are no more made of sows' ears than of rayon. The artificial has nothing to offer but surfaces. In these poems the author has come to terms with life, signed the valiant compromise, the Medean alternative, delivering her awareness over to pain. Her sentience speeds to its martyrdom crying,
And the torture-chamber,
With the last maddening turn of the screw
As one who believes the admixture of what we call human nature to be changeless, I can recall no better for any seasonal lovers than this newest idealization of the emotions:
Oh night of love, your groves of strange content
Project a thralldom over coming days;
Exalted, derelict, and blind I went
Unmindfully along Life's misty ways.
If with us the practice of a book of verses underneath the bough, or, better still, before the fire, has grown into sneering disrepute, it threatens the obsequies of the finest art, the gentle art of love-making. Lovers are the only persons left to us of any elegance at all. The last of the aristocrats, the Great Lover moves among his menials with a soul all prinked out in plumes, knee-buckles, and diamant shoon. Whatever his age, his past experiences, or physical characteristics, the true lover becomes an abstract creature, as shriven and innocent as at the day of his birthor death . . .
Consider me a melody
That serves its simple turn,
Or but the residue of fire
That settles in the urn . . .
You will know that such snatches of song are unfair to the singer, but this, and more, Mrs. Johnson has poignantly lineated and set down for whatever God blessed folk remain in this hard-boiled day.
Anne Spencer, [Review of An Autumn Love Cycle], Crisis 36, No.3 (March 1929): 87
Marita Odette Bonner
It will have to be the old figure, I guess. It will have to be the figure of fire.Love is fire.But surely it is a fire.Love must be a fire, lit in the beginning to warm us, to light us, to circle us in completely from the iciness of the Struggleduring our Night-of-passage. In Youth, love is a flame mad and consuming, licking out to eat up Ideas and Ideals, true and false alike.
In Autumn, love is a smoldering fire. A yellow flame burning thinly here, a blue flame pouring steadily there, a red glow everywhere underneath the coals. A red glow smoldering under the coals, that must soon be covered with ashes from the Night.
In Autumna smoldering fire. Afire smoldering with yellow and blue jets. Yellow jets. Reflections of other flames. Yellow jets:
Oh night of love,
Your rapt ecstatic hours were mine.
Blue, steady, and a red glow all through:
Would I might mend
the fabric of my youth
For I would go a further while with you
And drain the cup of Joy.
It is all there. The ashes of experiences burnt through, scorched through and become New "Welt," "Illusion," "Parody," "Delusion," Steadily
And all through the Autumn Love Cycle you feel there glows before you, a life that has leapt eagerly to embrace all living, all loving. There is no forced pretences at flights of emotion hereno sycophant, sexual, blue wailings. (. . .)
Truly it is a fire that has burned steadily, bravely, unflinchingly. Surely here is a life lived steadily, a life lived whole.
Sticklers with their noses lowered to root out flaws might fail to see the steadiness, the wholeness sometimes when everything seems to sink suddenly laden with the heavy ornateness of the good old language of the nineteenth century. But there will always be rooters for flaws and sticklers for words and seekers for form-divorced-from content. And there will always be contentLife and Love whether it marches proudly and aristocratically in flawless formwhether it labors and heaves under a tangle of rocks and weeds.
And the Autumn Love Cycle swings completelyswings fullyglows with a reality that burns off any slight dross, any shade of imperfection and makes you draw deep scorching breath and say,
Is this what it is to be
if you are young.
If you are oldand if you are oldI guess you know that the fire of love even burns ashes.
Marita Odette Bonner, [Review of An Autumn Love Cycle], Opportunity 7, No.4 (April 1929): l30
Georgia Douglas was a teacher in Atlanta before becoming, in 1903, the wife of Henry Lincoln Johnson, later recorder of deeds in the District of Columbia. She is the author of three small volumes, The Heart of a Woman (1918), Bronze (1922), and An Autumn Love Cycle (1928). While much of her work transcends the bounds of race, her second booklet was dominated by the striving of the Negro; and her sympathy may also be seen in such a later poem as "Old Black Men."
They have dreamed as young men dream
Of glory, love and power;
They have hoped as youth will hope
Of life's sun-minted hour.
They have seen as others saw
Their bubbles burst in air,
And they have learned to live it down
As though they did not care.
In her earlier work Mrs. Johnson cultivated especially the poignant, sharply chiselled lyric that became so popular with Sara Teasdale and some other writers a decade or two ago. Later, however, there came into bet verse a deeper, a more mellow note, as in "I Closed My Shutters Fast Last Night."
I closed my shutters fast last night,
Reluctantly and slow,
So pleading was the purple sky
With all the lights hung low;
I left my lagging heart outside
Within the dark alone,
I heard it singing through the gloom
A wordless, anguished tone.
Upon my sleepless couch I lay
Until the tranquil morn
Came through the silver silences
To bring my heart forlorn,
Restoring it with calm caress
Unto its sheltered bower,
While whispering, "Await, await
Your golden, perfect hour."
Benjamin Brawley, The Negro Genius (New York: Dodd, Mead, 1937), pp. 219-20
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